Improving Efficiency and Visibility with Real-Time RFID Tracking and Automation
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Improving Efficiency and Visibility with Real-Time RFID Tracking and Automation

Lee Murray, Director, Troy Design & Manufacturing
Lee Murray, Director, Troy Design & Manufacturing

Lee Murray, Director, Troy Design & Manufacturing

In manufacturing, time is of the essence. A few seconds shaved  off a process can result in minutes and hours saved in the long run. This was at the top of our mind, as we looked at tracking system options for our new Troy Design & Manufacturing (TDM) Chicago Modification Center.

TDM is a Ford Motor Company metal stamping subsidiary. In May 2011, we were expanding into the vehicle conversion business at our Chicago Modification Center where we convert base-model Ford vehicles into police Interceptors. With more than 150 daily vehicle conversions, we knew that a manual, paper-based tracking system would not be efficient enough to handle our operations. And while bar coding and fixed terminal entry was a consideration, these methods alone would not provide the level of automation required to meet our production targets.

What we were looking for was a highly automated, computerized infrastructure to efficiently track, guide and report every step of our vehicle conversions. We needed something more “handsoff” to both reduce the amount of movement required by operators, and ensure that we were tracking and timing vehicles from the moment they entered their cells. That is why we decided to explore RFID.

Building an RFID Solution

To begin the process, we selected Lowry Solutions to help establish our RFID vision. To stay within our budget and aggressive timeframe of eight months, Lowry conducted vigorous prototyping and testing while maintaining a steady dialogue with us throughout the development phase, sharing interactive progression of prototype updates and making adjustments based on our feedback. This agile development process led to a Work in Process (WIP) software application that seamlessly integrated with 7iD middleware and Motorola Solutions FX9500 Fixed RFID Readers and AN2000 RFID Antennae.

Timeframe demands were successfully met thanks to hands-on tailoring and collaboration. The completed solution is able to generate RFID tags with complex work instructions, bill of materials and tracking numbers tied to a vehicle’s VIN number as it enters the facility. With this information, operators can direct vehicles through production cells with real-time guidance solely from RFID scans and reads.

The application makes decisions and directs traffic flow based on the information in the system. It’s hands-off so operators aren’t rifling through paper, trying to see where things go and needing to make decisions.

The Results: Time Savings of Almost Three Hours a Day

During the test phase, time studies showed RFID scans shaving five to seven seconds off total workstation time compared against barcode scans, significantly saving time considering each of the +150 daily vehicle conversions can go through up to 10 workstations. This adds up to time savings of almost three hours a day.

“During the test phase, time studies showed RFID scans shaving five to seven seconds off total workstation time compared against barcode scans”

We can now capture time and date stamps without hand scans, documenting what activity occurred when vehicles were at checkpoints. Automating data collection makes everything very consistent and reliable.

The real-time visibility provided by RFID offered even more opportunities for streamlining operations than we had initially anticipated. In the beginning, we had each individual conversion step signed-off by the operator, but we quickly realized that this was overkill. Because we were tracking data at a higher level, we didn’t have to tie down our operators with what they were recording. We still get the same value out of the information.

Because the WIP interfaces to Ford Motor Company’s database, we’re able to use RFID to report vehicle receipt, production progress and shipping updates back to Ford in real-time. The infrastructure itself exceeded our expectations. With the improved tag read rates and consistency, and the overall visibility that the system provides, we are always able to see where vehicles are in the modification process inside and outside of the facility with a higher level of efficiency than we anticipated.

What the Future Holds

With the abandonment of manual, paper-based tracking, over 90 percent of our operations are already automated by RFID. But there is always the potential to expand our current operations and infrastructure. We’d like to add RFID to even more work stations to increase our visibility both inside and outside the facility. We’re still using barcodes in some areas, especially in slow content and repair areas, but we’re looking to expand capabilities. We’re exploring even more way to leverage RFID in the future and exceed our manufacturing expectations.

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